Protecting the Memory of Our Pioneers; Laying Claim to Unclaimed Tombs
They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars. We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided.
By Claire Leow
(August 9, 2013)
News this week that the contract for the new road has been awarded was like a punch in the gut, as much as it had been expected to happen. With the announcement, tombs affected would be exhumed by the fourth quarter.
But as the news filtered into my consciousness, one fact hit me harder than any other. It was not about transport policies, the population forecast or the contradiction about land use around the central catchment area. It lay in the numbers: 4,153 and 1,263.
“Since details of the affected graves were published in March 2012, the Land Transport Authority has received a total of 1,263 claims for affected graves,” read the announcement.
It stopped me in my tracks. First, the number of graves to be affected has risen to 4,153 graves and second, of these only 1,263 have been claimed.
There are those who say 4,153 out of 100,000 tombs is but a small percentage but we who are trying to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown are not in the game of mathematical democracy. We have a holistic perspective. These are the lives of pioneers we are talking about, not a question of minority and majority. To potentially lose trace of the history of that many is painful. Over the last 20 months where volunteers stepped forward to help amateur historian Raymond Goh in his valiant attempt to explore our forgotten history, we have but scratched the surface with our amateur sleuthing and but explored a mere hundred or more. To think we have not yet unraveled the stories of another 4,000 is rather deflating. Time is not on our side. We are a society in a hurry to move forward.
Then there is the question of the unclaimed – 4,153 minus 1,263 or 2,890.
I know for a fact from our volunteer work on the ground that this doesn’t reflect badly on families who have not claimed their forebears – we know for a fact that many, for various reasons, have not been able to trace all their ancestors. Others are still searching. (Tips on tracing ancestors here. Burial register here.)
There are a variety of reasons and this list is not exhaustive: false leads, such as confusing spellings of Romanised Chinese names, spelling them in Mandarin or dialect pronunciation, or confusing dates (does 7-5-23 scribbled in mom’s notes refer to May 7, 1923 or the fifth day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar? Does it refer to 1923 on the Roman calendar or the 23rd year of the Republic, namely 1934?). They have the work cut out for them.
There’s also the older practice among the Chinese to have several names, at birth, puberty and in adulthood. For the luminous, there were also titles bought or bestowed. Further, it was considered rude to refer to elders by name. As time passed, it would be hard to remember or record all these monikers. The wonderful find of Seah Eu Chin’s tomb after 100 years illustrated this point – for he was identified by his generational name, a cultural practise in decline. The Seah clan, which used to have large reunions until the war disrupted the practice, came together at the grave site last year and most recently at the exhibition, Bukit Brown: Our Roots, Our Future, as researcher Walter Lim explained the cultural background key to understanding the familial history.
Many others, raised on the Speak Mandarin policy, have also lost traces of their regional languages such as Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka, and are unable to recall the oral history left by their parents/grandparents and pronounce their ancestors’ names correctly and trace the transliterated names in Romanised pronunciation. There are many such obstacles in ancestor tracing.
Then there is the fact that Bukit Brown, unlike clan cemeteries of its time, was a municipal cemetery created with the foresight of the likes of Municipal Commissioners Tan Kheam Hock and See Tiong Wah who saw the coalsecing of society and created a communal resting space for members of a society that may not have been identifying with clans. Therefore the Straits Chinese or Peranakans were burying their loved ones at Bukit Brown, giving it the moniker, the Peranakan Cemetery. Indeed many Peranakan luminaries are buried there, such as Tan Kheam Hock himself, Chia Hood Theam and Tan Keong Saik. It is a well-known fact that Peranakans speak dialects or Malay and English rather than Mandarin, which has made it hard for many descendants to find the tombs when they cannot read the grave inscriptions. Hence many Peranakans have difficulty finding their forebears unless there are English epitaphs to help.
Raymond Goh and I personally witnessed the effect of this language deficiency in the case of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow, Oon Tuan Cheng, buried in Hill 2. When the descendants approached us, we were intrigued and began to join the dots and to find out more from them and for them. And there, on the grounds of Bukit Brown, Raymond found the tombs of Tok’s mothers and Oon’s parents. A family that had only just confirmed they had to exhume two ancestors now realised six were at stake. How many more were like them, unaware of other relatives affected by the highway?
In the case of Oon’s parents, it was also serendipitous that Raymond posted an old newspaper notice about Oon Chong Lock’s granddaughter’s wedding, which featured the name of the grandfather of a Singaporean lady. “That’s how we managed to connect the dots!” she said. And that was also how a second family came into the picture, from another branch of the family. With that find, all six tombs – and not just two – have been claimed. ”It’s very moving to see the names of my father, aunts, uncles on the tomb,” the descendant said. Thanks to these inscriptions, another researcher has since found her grandfather’s tomb, also at Bukit Brown.
It is not difficult to imagine this scenario being repeated many times over but others not having the chance to unravel these threads given the timeframe for the road construction. It is only recently that many archived documents and articles have been digitised to make ancestor tracing a tad easier.
There are yet others who are part of the Singapore diaspora trying to find their roots but are hampered by distance and time, aided by volunteers and social media to share information and leads. In fact, one of the most touching moments in this enterprise to raise awareness of the heritage and history of Bukit Brown and assist the community came early, when Alex Lim, who lives in Shanghai, helped to perform tomb-sweeping rites last year for a man, Khoo Phee Soon, buried near his grandfather on behalf of Khoo’s descendant, Anna De Lataulade of Toronto, Canada. The tombs are on Hill 4.
As he helped Anna on this errand, posting photos for her benefit, Alex mused online, “Time flies… 73 years since he left this world…”
Anna, thousands of miles away, replied on the Facebook page, “He was loved and is not forgotten.”
Alex and Anna have never met. This moving vignette is evidence that Bukit Brown is as much for the living as for the dead.
Likewise, 180 years after he passed on, Fang Shan, a coolie, is still remembered – not by family, but by clansmen. It remains one of the most poignant experiences to stand at his humble grave and realise the value of memory and the need to honour the humble beginnings of our country. To boot, his gravestone bears the early name of Singapore, 星 洲 (Sin Zhou), Isle of Stars. I spoke about this in this TEDx talk.
“Sin Chew” is a sobriquet for “Singapore” popularized by Nanyang literatus Khoo Seok Wan (also buried at Bukit Brown and to be exhumed for the highway). Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar.
(Liang Shao Wen, “Nanyang Travels”, p. 62, circa 1920s, translated by Lai Chee Kien)
It’s worth re-telling that tidbit on this, our 48th National Day, August 9, 2013. The theme this year is Many Stories, One Singapore. Well, here are the many stories laid in the open museum of Bukit Brown. Many stories, one history. Today, onsite, we celebrate Many Stories, One Singapore @ Bukit Brown.
For in the end, we are one big family. We stand on the shoulders of our pioneers. They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars.
We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided. They came ashore and many never made the return trip home. Many even feared getting on a boat ever again and face the perils at sea.
For better or for worse, Singapore would be home forever. They are sons and daughters of our soil now.
(Tomb couplets which tell the story arc of a typical immigrant to Singapore: born in China, buried in Singapore.)
Now 2,890 of these pioneers are again adrift in the tides of history. Under current practice, if they are unclaimed after three years, their ashes would be cast at sea in a place off Changi, lost to time and tide forever. This realisation, more than any other detail with the announcement of the road contract, is heart-wrenching.
Therefore I would venture to ask, if they are unclaimed, can we as a nation find it in our hearts to “claim” them as our family, the family of our nation, and allow them a place in the columbarium instead of being cast at sea?
There has been talk of a memorial garden for those to be exhumed for the road. Personally I find this redundant. For Bukit Brown is already a memorial garden. Any alternative pales in comparison. In fact, there is no comparison.
But for those unclaimed, soon to be lost to history, I would like to appeal for a memorial columbarium, that they may remain on Singapore soil, that should descendants realise in time who they are, may find them in the columbarium, and until that time, such a columbarium may be the repository of information for such research. Torn apart from the earth protectors and at the cusp of eviction, it is only right that we protect them and honour their memory with a final resting place on our land.
The task of remembering doesn’t just fall upon descendants. Our pioneers are our nation’s forebears.
Our pioneers are not just numbers on stakes. These are their names.
Elegy for an Urban Graveyard by the Economist
The “Brownie” Researchers of Bukit Brown:
Please join one of the tours via the Facebook page. The little voice in my head did ask, ‘why do you want to visit a graveyard, isn’t it creepy?’ But having been there, I can say it was a really moving experience. The wilderness in particular is really beautiful.
Bukit Brown has also received international attention e.g., http://www.economist.com/
There’s a tiny, tiny window of opportunity to change decisions. Visit Bukit Brown yourself, and if it touches you, then perhaps write to the LTA or contact your local MP to save Bukit Brown for its heritage and biodiversity value.”
by Goh Si Guim, of Nature Society (Singapore)
Bukit Brown at a Crossroad; Possible alternative
With the increased in population in Singapore, We envisioned that more land would be taken up by infrastructures. Areas occupied by roads will also grow to accommodate the concomitant growth in car population in Singapore. We recognized that the relevant agencies have implemented various measures to manage and curb growth in car population. Over the years, these measures include improvement in road systems and ERP. At the same time efforts have been made to make public transportation palatable to a wider section of the population. The greatly expanded rail network is a case in point.
However, it has been demonstrated that these measures, touted as ways to slash or curb car numbers, have been unsuccessful. It must also be recognized that the car population cannot be allowed to grow unabated, especially when there is fierce competitive uses for limited land. A measure of proportionality must prevail. Should it be skewed one way or another, they should be for the good of the great majority.
In this instance, a eight-lane highway is to be built to allow for a smoother flow of traffic over a short stretch of road. This is essentially to address a localized problem for some transient periods of time.
This problem could also be contributed by heavy and slow traffic flow in regions immediately adjacent to Lornie Road. We ponder its necessity and its ability to ameliorate the bottleneck encountered here and further afield, in areas leading to and leading away from Lornie Road.
These glacial traffics hinder the flow of vehicles, including public buses, which serve a greater proportion of the commuting public. With these schedules disrupted, it is not surprising that public transportation has been branded as unreliable.
An alternative passage to the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) can be implemented that could alleviate the congestions experience along Lornie Road and the close vicinities.
With the continuing expansion of the rail network (more in the pipeline), it is also time to relook current measures to manage car population.
The traffic coming from the north-east region of Singapore is largely channeled to the PIE via Lornie Road. The main axes leading to Lornie Road are Bartley Road, Upper Serangoon Road and the Central Expressway (CTE), through Braddell Road. Lornie Road also receives substantial traffic coming down from Upper Thomson Road, serving heartland areas of Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. Traffic going down Adam Road could have been slowed down by the busy Farrer-Bukit Timah junction. The slip roads from Lornie Road into both direction of PIE may also be inadequate.
Furthermore, the PIE itself may have been overwhelmed by heavy traffic, streaming from the east and city and north, via the CTE. This, in turn, slows down the traffic joining and leaving PIE at that junction. Several schools are situated around Whitley Road and Bukit Timah Road. Parents dropping off and picking up their children also impede traffic.
All in, the traffic in the wider area around and linked to Lornie Road are in the same state, slowed to a crawl in those hours!
Lornie Road merely serves as a conduit to channel traffic from one congested area to another. Having passed through the snarl on Lornie Road itself, motorist would still find themselves inching their way through many of the roads with myriad of intersections. During peak hours, the traffic exceeded the carrying capacities of Lornie and these other roads that are either feeding traffic into or draining traffic from it.
The junction of Sime Road and Lornie Road with traffic lights serves the needs of a small number of cars leaving Singapore Island Country Club. But it contributes substantially to the congestion and should be done away with.
The capacity of the PIE can be doubled with a extensive viaduct built over PIE (akin to West Coast/Pasir Panjang Road, Upper Serangoon Road, near Lor Lew Lian) as a two-tier highway.
With leaving Bukit Brown intact in mind, a viaduct can start from the Thomson/Marymount /Braddell junction (Junction A) area, above the Thomson Road southward towards the old Police Academy, swing west at the corner on PIE west of the Thomson Flyerover (Junction B). A slip road can allow traffic to join the PIE towards the East. The viaduct then follows the course of the PIE, over the Mt Pleasant Flyover (Bottleneck 2) and Adam Flyover (Bottleneck 1). It may rejoin PIE somewhere before the Eng Neo (or even before Exit 22). Alternatively, it can continue westwards to reach BKE. Eastwards, the viaduct can link up with CTE and perhaps beyond.
This viaduct would allow a large part of the east-west traffic to avoid those junctions that are feeding traffic into the PIE or bleeding traffic to surrounding regions. It thus allows some unhindered traffic on the viaduct, enabling them to avoid junctions or exit roads of no relevance to them. At the same time, these measures de-congest the original PIE, early smoother traffic flow in and out of peripheral roads.
Similar viaducts like the West Coast/Pasir Panjang Road viaduct and Upper Serangoon (passing Paya Lebar Methodist Church) viaduct and others essentially serve to allow motorists unimpeded travel,
Doubling the capacity of main carriageways through multi-tier methodology should be carried out more widely. This would allow the capacity of existing land devoted to roads to be harnessed several hundred percents. Converting new land to roads can be avoided, allow them to retain its present purpose or purposes that benefit other segment of the population (other than the motoring population). We ‘double’ exploit, where possible, the thousands of square kilometer of existing road surface that has already covered a substantial amount of land area in Singapore.
With direct reference to Bukit Brown, the grounds should be left in its existing state. The value of natural greenery defies easy quantification in terms of its biodiversity, climatic and environmental moderation, aesthetic and therapeutic benefits.
The quality matters a great deal too. Open grasslands, such as golf courses, are not substantive greenery, lacking in diversity and biomass. Here the greenery needs to be ‘multi-tiered’ as well and would do better to contribute the benefits mentioned prior.
Spaces need to be set aside for the times when the populace is not contributing to the GDP. Nature areas play valuable roles while seem idle. They contribute to the GDP by providing the counterbalance to a hectic lifestyle; rejuvenate us, enabling us to contribute to the GDP through healthy productivity and optimal consumption of resources. Nature heals in mysterious ways. Though unquantifiable, they nevertheless have immense power and value and contribute positively to the national ‘pie’, our economy.
Overall, this new highway does not alleviate the jam if the downstream hiccups are not done away with. By zooming out, It would be noted that the traffic snarl cover areas greater than Lornie Road itself. A more comprehensive study is needed.
By building this highway, it could only mean that a greater volume of vehicles is trapped and sitting through the jam, spewing toxic gases into the atmosphere.
On a wider perspective, it will be a very expensive undertaking to accommodate more cars on our road. This is in terms of the resources and their impact on the health of the environment and the population.
A high level panel must be created to comprehensively relook the overall infrastructural needs at many levels and involving many levels of consultation. All concepts and projections, however mundane or radical, must not be hastily dismissed but duly and rigorously addressed.
The relevant agencies must be forthcoming in seeking expertise input, even non-mainstream ones. Pertinent information must be shared in order that consultation covers all aspects.
A convincing outcome would be one that is acceptable to all.
The community of concerned groups over the future of Bukit Brown is formally calling for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown. This moratorium should be in place until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted. Given on-going national discussions over housing, transportation and immigration, there is room for policy adjustments. Plans to develop housing and transport infrastructure in the greater Bukit Brown area cannot be made when these discussions are underway and before the public has had an opportunity to fully consider the details surrounding such proposals.
In addition, there has not been sufficient time for a public conversation over plans by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Land Transport Authority for Bukit Brown, nor a discussion about the alternatives proposed by the Nature Society’s position paper issued in December. We are asking for more meaningful engagement than what we have experienced so far. Bukit Brown is important enough that all parties should be able to participate in discussions over its future reasonably as interested citizens, whether individually, as informal communities, or organised formally.
More on the NSS Position Paper
What would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won?
By Lisa Li
Cemeteries now occupy less than 0.95% of land – do our grandchildren really need this?
“Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want me to look after your grandchildren?” asked then-Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San in the 1960s, and Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin in 2012.
What would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won?
For one, we wouldn’t have the clear, grassy slopes of Fort Canning Park for WOMAD and Ballet Under the Stars. No, in its place, we’d have a messy Fort Canning Cemetery crowded with 19th-century graves of governors, administrators, sailors, traders, teachers, many young women and children – some even buried two to a grave.
Instead of Bishan housing estate, home to 91,298 people at last count, the Cantonese Kwong Wai Siew Association might still have their Peck San Theng (Jade Hill Pavilion) built in 1870 – the largest cemetery in Singapore, with 75,234 graves eventually exhumed. Likewise parts of Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah would still have cemeteries where public housing now stands.
A Jewish cemetery dating from 1838 or 1841 would stand in place of Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, its small plot housing 160 graves. And instead of the shops at Velocity, Novena Square, Phoenix Park, we might see Jewish tombs designed by the famous Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli in the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery, in use from 1904 onwards.
Instead of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, on the land between Bukit Timah, Kampong Java, Halifax and Hooper Road, we’d have a flood-prone Bukit Timah Cemetery packed with Catholic and Protestant graves from 1865.
Neither would we have Ngee Ann City, Mandarin Hotel, Cathay Cineleisure and Wisma Atria. Instead, in the heart of Orchard Road would sit a 28-hectare burial ground Tai Shan Ting, managed by theTeochew Ngee Ann Kongsi.
And of course, we wouldn’t have those clear, flat fields along Upper Serangoon Road, a space now emptying itself out in preparation for new condominiums and residential towns. In its place, we might still have the 10.5-hectare early 20th-century Bidadari Cemetary, with its delicate marble sculptures and tombstones etched with different languages in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu sections.
One might conclude that the 1960s generation did the right thing. They were self-sacrificial enough (or, were forced) to forgo their ancestors’ graves so that their grandchildren could have the space for housing, shopping, infrastructure, all these modern amenities we now enjoy.
Especially for those of us living and working in Orchard, Novena, Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah, this giving up of graveyard space for modern development seems good and necessary.
Burial grounds now occupy less than 0.95% of Singapore’s land area
But the fact is, back in 1967, burial grounds only made up 1.1% (619 hectares) of land area on Singapore Island, and by 1982, after the clearing of Bukit Timah Cemetery, Peck San Theng (Bishan) etc, it was down to 534 hectares (approx 0.95% of Singapore’s land area).
Furthermore, this 0.95% figure doesn’t even include the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery (cleared by 1985), 10.5 hectare Bidadari Cemetery (cleared by 2006), and 7-hectare Kwong Hou Sua in Woodlands (cleared by 2009).
Is it really necessary to wipe clean these remaining precious spaces that take up less than 0.95% of Singapore’s land area?
And if Singapore desperately needs more land, why aren’t we first using the land area currently occupied by Orchid Country Club, Raffles Country Club, Singapore Island Country Club, Warren Golf & Country Club, and the golf and country clubs in Changi, Jurong, Keppel, Marina Bay, Kranji, Selatar Base, Sembawang, Tanah Merah?
(Golf courses cover 2.2% of Singapore, according to the URA Land Allocation Focus Group Final Report 2001.)
Perhaps in the past, it was deemed necessary for our grandparents to relinquish their burial grounds for public housing and the development of the shopping belt in Orchard and Novena.
But how much is enough, and what is the optimum point between preserving tangible heritage and history, and allowing the land to be taken over by even more modern amenities, condominiums and wider roads? This concerns all of us and future generations, and we need proper, genuine discussion before bulldozers irreversibly destroy these old spaces.
Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin’s argument hinges on Mr Lim Kim San’s question, but asking Singaporeans to choose between our dead grandparents and our grandchildren is a severe misrepresentation of the issue.
I strongly suspect our grandchildren will not live in misery for want of that extra 0.95% of land. In fact, I hope our grandchildren will be more creative in their urban design, with efficient use of land and infrastructure, without resorting to the destruction of the few cemeteries left.
And if current public sentiment is anything to judge the future by, I suspect our grandchildren will enjoy walking in a protected, conserved Bukit Brown, seeing and touching history in tangible forms, and will one day ask, what would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won? That is, if we don’t win today.
Lisa Li is a member of SOS Bukit Brown. The Community of Bukit Brown calls for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown, until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted.
Tan, K. YL, ‘Introduction: The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore’ from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011.
Tan, B.H. & Yeoh, B. SA, ‘The Remains of the Dead: Spatial Politics of Nation-Building in Post-war Singapore’ from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011).
If you have come to know Bukit Brown and feel that it embraces our collective identity of Heritage.Habitat.History, then join the people of all ages and from all walks of life who have signed the open letter to the authorities to save it. Spread the word so it may be appreciated by future generations as a living legacy.
Heritage. Habitat. History.
The experts weigh in on what could happen if Bukit Brown goes down the route of the 8 lane highway…..